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How to Slow Down and Write the Quiet Moments in Your Novel

by Rachael Arsenault 12 months ago in advice

It's not all about climaxes and big reveals.

Photo by Aleksandr Ledogorov on Unsplash

In writing, it’s tempting to focus only on the big moments – the dramatic, bombastic scenes were confessions are made, or battles are won and lost, or huge twists are revealed. This is where the spectacle and the drama live, and that’s often what hooks readers in or gets people talking.

But books are more than just their jaw-dropping scenes. They’re also made of the quiet spaces in between. The scenes where characters are being friends or dealing with smaller disagreements and misunderstandings or just straight up sorting through their emotions. These scenes are the threads that weave the broader story together, the glue that ensures those major plot elements don’t feel disjointed or shoved together.

However, figuring out how to incorporate these smaller moments can be tricky. They’re less likely to make it into your outline, and it’s easy to fall into the pattern of just having your characters sit around and discuss whatever new, exciting thing has happened, which obviously gets boring and repetitive. So how do you include the quiet in-betweens in a way that feels organic and necessary?

There isn’t a rubric or exact science for how to strike that balance, but I can offer some rules of thumb to follow.

(Also, please bear in mind with these examples that I’m accustomed to writing fantasy. Big vs. small and loud vs. quiet moments can look different depending on your genre, but the principle is the same.)

Filler vs. Quiet Moments

I think this is probably the issue a lot of writers are running into when they say they don’t know how to slow down and include small scenes without it becoming boring and repetitive. They’re including those smaller moments just for the sake of having them there, not because it aids in transitioning through the narrative, or developing characters, or exploring relationships. That’s the biggest question to ask yourself, especially when editing: How does this scene serve my story, my characters, and my world? If it’s just there to be a breather, chances are you need to rework it. Just because these scenes are small and quiet doesn’t mean they should be insignificant.

Travel and Downtime

In one of my books, She Who Rises, travel is an important part of how the story moves forward, and so I have to convey that travel throughout the story. Rather than jumping from a scene in one location to another scene in a new place with only a brief nod to the fact that the characters had to travel to get there, travelling became an important through line in that book – and the rest of the series. Those travel scenes are where I show Farida singing along to pop songs as she drives, characters bickering and arguing about the best course of action to take next, and even Amber listening to the radio and learning about important events that happened off-screen.

There are a lot of other in-between, transitional moments that can function similarly to these sorts of travel scenes. It could be characters sitting down to a meal (though obviously you probably don’t need to include every single instance of characters eating together), or planning/research/preparation scenes (especially as a sort of calm-before-the-storm situation leading into a climax), or characters picking up the pieces and/or patching themselves back up after a particularly intense scene. These all offer opportunities to slow down and deal with the ramifications of what has happened, figure out what they’re doing next, and just breathe and interact with each other outside of high stakes and high drama.

Which brings us to:

Remember your characters’ goals…

All of your characters are going to have some sort of stake in the main plot – otherwise, why are they there? But they’re also going to have their own, personal journeys, and with them their own conflicts (internal and external), motivations, goals, ideals, fears, etc. These are great things to dig into to help the world and your story feel like it’s about more than just the central plot. Plus, it makes your characters more engaging.

Having through lines with each of your major character can create lots of opportunities to explore emotional scenes and character growth outside the confines of the core plotline, without feeling tacked on or out-of-place. And if your characters are genuinely growing and developing in these scattered scenes, then it shouldn’t feel repetitive, either.

… And their relationships

Building off the last point, characters’ goals, motivations, fears, etc. can affect how they relate to other characters in the narrative, and that in turn can generate lots of wonderful, dynamic scenes outside of the core conflict. How do friends react to learning the main character has been keeping a dangerous secret? How do allies of wildly differing backgrounds and experiences relate to each other as they move through the story together? What about that stand-offish, borderline antagonistic character who eventually becomes a trusted confidante?

Fairly late into She Who Rises, Amber and Masika have a one-on-one conversation. What they discuss and what is revealed has no immediate relevance to or impact on the central plot, but the scene certainly isn’t filler, either, since the tension and disagreement they regularly struggled against in their interactions was a well-established and important part of their growth – both individually and as part of a group. While this moment could technically be removed and the plot would still make sense, you would definitely lose something from their personal and combined journeys in doing so. And that would have an impact on how Amber reacts and relates to later events that are central to the story – it all comes full circle.

Don’t be afraid of a subplot – just make sure you resolve it

Most subplots are going to pertain to those personal goals, motivations, etc. and the relationships between characters, though some subplots will be more personal and others will lean more on relationships. A good example of this is a romance subplot. If done well, it should be woven throughout the narrative, slotting in around the core conflict and enhancing characters’ personal struggles and uncertainties, their hopes and fears, and their growth and connections to others in the story.

However, be sure that your subplots don’t just fizzle out when the main plot comes knocking. If your main character has always wanted to be a veterinarian and struggles to reconcile that dream with an uncertain future caused by, say, an alien invasion, that dream and that conflict shouldn’t cease to exist because she’s gotten in deep with The Resistance. That’s not to say that the dream has to be fulfilled – your character might choose to abandon it to pursue a greater cause – but it should find some sort of closure and resolution by the story’s end.

Ultimately, learning to slow down and find space to breathe in your story instead of just going full steam ahead with the plot tends to boil down to understanding your characters. How are the events of the story affecting them and their relationships? What do they want or fear or struggle with outside of the conflict that drives the narratives? What are the smaller stories within the main story? Once you learn to explore these considerations, you should be able to organically and meaningfully incorporate slow, quiet scenes throughout your book.


Rachael Arsenault

Rachael Arsenault is a Canadian author with a BA in Sociology and Native Studies. She's a hippie at heart, a D&D nerd, and a pun enthusiast.


Instagram and Twitter: @rachaellawrites

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